Want to Stop Arguing and Change Spouse’s Behavior? Start With Mirror; Studies: People Motivated to Be in Relationship Will Alter Behavior to Be More Like Partner

Want to Stop Arguing and Change Spouse’s Behavior? Start With Mirror

Studies: People Motivated to Be in Relationship Will Alter Behavior to Be More Like Partner

ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN

Jan. 6, 2014 7:16 p.m. ET

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Want your partner to exercise more? Drink less? Your best chance of getting your way is to change yourself first. WSJ’s Elizabeth Bernstein explains why, and guest Steve Miksis explains how he changed for the sake of his marriage. Photo: Kike Arnal for The Wall Street Journal.Ever want to change something about your partner? Get him or her to eat better or work less? Exercise more? Stop nagging or yelling? Start with a mirror.

Your best chance of transforming someone else—and the dynamic in your relationship—is to demonstrate your willingness to alter your own actions, experts say.

The good news, this kind of change isn’t as hard as you think. Studies show that when a person is motivated to be in a relationship and wants it to work, he or she will readily change to be more like their partner. Often, they don’t even know they are adjusting their own behavior.

When Steve Miksis started dating Lori Bowden four years ago, he told her he was an introvert. He warned her that he hated parties and groups—his online dating profile said, “I don’t dance”—and liked mountain climbing and playing his guitar at home instead.

 

This worked fine for the couple—at first. They had a lot in common. Both were divorced after long marriages, both liked thoughtful conversations and both shared a smart-aleck sense of humor. They spent time together hiking, talking and going out to dinner.

Eventually, though, Ms. Bowden began to tire of going to group events without Mr. Miksis. She invited him to a friend’s Halloween party, and he refused to attend. Ditto an art opening and a wedding. She began to feel she was settling for a relationship where she had to go places alone. They began to bicker.

One evening after an argument, Mr. Miksis decided the relationship wasn’t working for him, either. Something had to change—and it had to be him.

“I thought, ‘I have to make a choice. If I go my old route, there may be no coming back,’ ” recalls Mr. Miksis, who is 61 and lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. And so he agreed to go to the costume party—and even wore a

Researchers have been looking at how much our mates can influence us even without trying. In a 2009 study, researchers at Villanova University in Pennsylvania asked subjects to come to the lab with their romantic partner and to rate themselves on positive attributes such as creativity, athleticism, intelligence, humor and musicality. The partner then leaves the room, and a stranger of the opposite sex (whom the researchers call “the confederate”) arrives and chats with the participant.

Knowing which traits the participant has rated lowest, the confederate, as instructed, tells the participant that one of these traits is very important to him or her (for example, “I’m really musical”).

Next, the partner returns and, also as instructed, “reveals” to the participant that he or she values another low-ranking trait. Participants then rate themselves on all the attributes a second time.

Strikingly, participants typically raised their rankings of traits valued by the partner—demonstrating they were, perhaps subconsciously, motivated to adapt to suit the mate and improve the relationship.

Men were no more or less likely to adopt a partner’s attributes than women. But certain types of people were more likely to change to be like a partner—those with an “anxious” attachment style, who have an extreme desire for closeness.

“This exacerbates their willingness to engage in this change,” says Erica Slotter, the lead researcher and an assistant professor of psychology at Villanova.

Therapists say the most effective change you can make is to the way you react to things that bother you about your partner. We all have “triggers” that prompt us to have outsize negative reactions.

The emotional response usually has very little to do with the trigger itself. “This is where the stupidity comes in,” says Jessica Gelson, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “He left his sock on the floor, therefore he doesn’t care about me. I don’t matter.” It’s important to understand what triggers you and why, and to change your response.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

More tips on how to be a change agent:

Tell your partner this is important to you.

Keep practicing. Setbacks are expected. They are part of the process. Don’t beat yourself up.

Seek outside help. Get a professional in your court, or a support network of family and friends.

When one person starts to make changes, even positive changes, the other may feel frightened or resentful. “People are much more comfortable with what they know, even if it is bad,” she says.

Mr. Miksis says he decided to become more social after realizing that by refusing to accompany Ms. Bowden to parties, he was repeating a pattern that had caused problems in past relationships, including his first marriage.

“My perspective used to be very selfish—I did what I wanted to do,” says Mr. Miksis, a certified public accountant. “Now, I realized that I enjoyed this woman’s company so much that maybe I needed to step out a little bit. Even if I am a little uncomfortable, at least we are doing it together.”

But a funny thing happened: As Mr. Miksis started socializing more, Ms. Bowden became willing to take up activities that were important to him, rock and ice climbing—despite having had nightmares about them.

“The fact that he would consider me and think about me unselfishly like he did made me want to do the same for him,” says Ms. Bowden, 57, an artist and computer programmer.

A year and a half ago, the couple married. During the wedding planning, Mr. Miksis informed his bride that he wanted to dance with her after the ceremony. Her response: “Who are you?”

At their most-recent New Year’s Eve party, Mr. Miksis cooked his special shrimp dish but stayed at the party for just an hour. But be careful what you wish for. Sometimes, when the couple is entertaining, guests don’t leave and Mr. Miksis is happy to stay up chatting. That is when Ms. Bowden politely excuses herself and goes to bed.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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